After my real-time late-night note a few hours ago saying that I thought things had gone OK for Obama in Shanghai, I wake up to see this report from my friend Adam Minter, on the scene in Shanghai, about ways in which Obama's answers seemed disappointing from the local perspective:
"Obama's performance this afternoon reminded me of nothing so much as an overly coached American businessman on his first trip to China, so concerned about what he should or should not say that he forgets what he wanted to say in the first place."
I dunno. I understand the pattern Minter is talking about, and I'll watch the session again with that in mind. His account is worth reading for his assessment and for many amusing logistics details about the event. Adam Minter also did our dispatch on "Obama mania in China" over the weekend. UPDATE: Chris Good has more of the full transcript of Obama's talk, which shows that especially in the opening remarks he made about as explicit an argument in favor of liberties and freedom of expression as one can expect in the circumstances.
Related China/US rhetoric point: in two recent items, here and here, I tried to explain what a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman could have been thinking when comparing Chairman Mao to Abraham Lincoln, the Tibetan serfs whom Mao "freed" from the lamas as being similar to the black slaves whom Lincoln freed, etc. A reader's reponse:
"I agree with you on Chinese officials' lack of skills in communication and persuasion (part of this is due to political inward-looking, as you said, but the other part is cultural---Confucius said "a gentleman should be modest in speech but quick in action", and so eloquence in public speech, oration, etc, is never highly valued in Chinese tradition.)
"With regards to Qin Gang's [the foreign ministry spokesman] comment on Obama, Tibet, and slavery, however, I think he (as well as many other Chinese people) is genuinely thinking that the Chinese and American cases are comparable, or genuinely believe there are some valid points in Chinese views on Tibet that westerners tend to ignore, and they want to bring these points to the fore. I know you are a big Obama fan and obviously not a fan of Mao or Hu Jintao, but I think no one is really making personal comparisons. Now, Qin Gang's view (and the Chinese view) might be wrong---by the way you didn't explain why it's wrong on your blog---but it does not mean he cannot express his view. Why shouldn't Qin or any other Chinese official express their genuine opinion (be it right or wrong), but pander to Western thinking or adapt their expressions to suit Western ears?
"To me Qin's comment does not reflect a Chinese communication problem, but rather the vast difference between Chinese thinking and Western thinking on Tibet (after all, most westerners want to believe Seven Years in Tibet while most Chinese do not). Not that China does not have communication problems---the problems abound---but this is not a good example."
This is a useful opportunity for clarification. I agree with the writer that most Chinese officials (and, in my experience, most Chinese people) sincerely believe the Mao=Lincoln point. That's exactly what I said in the original post. The "communications problem" would be the failure to recognize that people outside the country generally don't think that way and will view the argument as bizarre at best. So Qin's holding the view does not illustrate the tin-ear problem I'm talking about; the question is why he said it that way to outsiders. Someone whose job is to address a foreign audience needs to know something about foreign assumptions, reactions, and so on. American politicians routinely say to home audiences, "This is God's country" and similar thoughts amounting to "We are better than the foreigners." But a State Department person who said those things to visiting reporters would be foolish or tin-eared. It's what Qin said, not what he thought, that's illustrates the problem.